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A Confrontation

"People like you should be in nursing homes," she said.


by Nicolas Steenhout

I was on my way from The Progress Center where I work to my nearby apartment to pick up my car when Wix, my service dog, stopped to pee. She stopped on the piece of lawn between the sidewalk and the street in front of the apartment building next to mine.

A man came out of the building. "Get that f*cking shitting dog off my property!" he yelled.

Startled, I responded that she wasn't shitting -- and that if she was, I would "pick up her shit."

I was a liar, he said, adding that it "happened all the time." More words were exchanged.

"F*cking cripple!"

He screamed loudly enough that a colleague just outside the backdoor of our office, across from the bank parking lot, actually heard him.

I lost my cool. He walked away and I followed. "What did you call me?"

He turned around and told me to "f*ck off." I suggested he go do the same to himself.

I turned around and went to get my car. The man and his wife (I assume that's their relationship) walked across the parking lot and started yelling at me in my car, calling me, among other things, a "conniving troublemaker."

You're just looking for pity, but it doesn't work."

I was called a liar several times.

The couple kept saying they were going to call the police. Please do, I told them, and offered my business card with my name. They didn't take it.

"God punished you," he said, "and I hope he punishes you some more."

It was not the first time I had dealt with this couple. When we first moved in, a few years ago, the woman had told my wife and me that we didn't "belong here."

"People like you should be in nursing homes," she said.

I went on my errand; when I got back to work, I learned a police officer had come by the center looking for "that man in the wheelchair with the dog." He had not left a business card, but our office manager had noticed his name on his badge and had written it down.

I called him and left a message. When he had not returned my call by the end of the day, I called again, leaving another message: I planned to file a complaint against the couple for harassment, assault, and hate speech, I said.

The next morning, when I had still not heard from the officer, I called a third time -- this time the phone was answered by another police officer; when I told her that I needed to speak to the officer who had come to the center, she assured me she would get him the message.

That afternoon, he finally called me back. I told him that the man had called me a "f*cking cripple," and that I wanted to file a complaint on the basis of hate speech. He insisted there was no such crime on the books; that it didn't exist (There is an Illinois Hate Crime statute and it does include disability.).

He lectured me. I must not let my dog defecate on that piece of property, he said. When I insisted my dog had done no such thing, he told me he had seen the fresh evidence on the lawn. If I let it happen again, without removing it, he said, he would bring me back to the station in handcuffs.

MONDAY, I CALL the Chief of Police to see if he has received my formal complaint. He says that he has, that he skimmed through it briefly but wants to read it more closely. He will be passing it on to his Deputy Chief, who handles Internal Affairs, he says.

The next two days I am not in the office, and I hear from no one about the matter. But on Thursday, on my way to work, I see a police car parked in front of the building where the events happened. I just keep on going, but Wix decides to stop 50 or so feet past the building. Of course, I pick the stuff up.

As I'm leaving, I hear my name called. Sure enough, the cop is wanting to speak to me. It's Officer Harrison again.

He tells me he's been assigned to investigate my allegations . He asks if I am going to be in the office later on. I tell him I will be.

When Officer Harrison comes by later that day, it's to tell me that he doesn't think what has happened can be classified a "hate crime." Some "actual threat" is required, he says. He says this is just "something small that has gotten overblown." I agree.

Would I be willing to sit with them and talk things out, he asks. I say that I'll try anything, but honestly don't think it will make a difference, because the problem isn't really the dog, the problem is this couple's bigoted attitude. Throughout it all, he behaves very nicely.

He also talks to my witnesses, asking at one point, "why is Nic in the wheelchair?" to which the staffer replies that if Harrison wants to know, he should ask me.

I receive another visit from Officer Harrison on Friday. He has called the Attorney General to see what they think of the whole thing. Apparently it's the AG's opinion that hate crime charges would not stand in court were they filed.

Harrison continues to talk. He wants to do things right, he says. Keeping the peace is in everyone's favour. The more he talks, the more I come to realize that he doesn't believe me that I pick after Wix.

We agree to meet Tuesday with the other party.

On Tuesday, I show up at the police station at the appointed time. Officer Harrison comes out and apologizes. He had forgotten to let me know, he says, but he won't be able to make the meeting, as he's busy on a drug case. "I'm so overwhelmed [with my job] that I want to cry," he tells me.

It is likely things will simply remain unresolved. I am moving in a month, to take a new job in Georgia. I am convinced, though, that the cop really doesn't get it, and the couple doesn't either. It's hard to get ableist bigots to even listen.

Nicolas Steenhout was a staffer at the Progress Center for Independent Living when this incident occurred. He can be reached at vavroom@bmee.net.

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